Rethinking Academic Success: Beyond Standardized Tests and GPAs

In a recent article dated January 8, 2024, David Leonhardt of The New York Times delved into an intriguing correlation: students who excel in standardized tests like the SAT/ACT often also have higher college GPAs. This finding prompts a vital question in the realm of education: What do these metrics truly measure?

The responses posted to the article (so overwhelming that the NYT closed the comments within 24 hours of publication) show that people lifted up by SATs really appreciated the opportunity and did well in college. For me, this belies the problem. Do you really get a better education at Harvard than Nebraska? I got an excellent education, even though I had to drop out of NYU because of funding problems. My grades were terrible - I had a 2.0 - but I wrestled on the college team, wrote for the school newspaper, worked on film crews for students in the film department, organized music events, and made some lifelong friends. 

Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" offers a critical perspective on this. Pirsig contends that GPAs, often seen as the gold standard of academic achievement, do not necessarily reflect a student's learning. Instead, they might just indicate how adept a student is at aligning with a professor's expectations. This raises an essential concern: Are grades inadvertently discouraging critical thinking, analysis, and creativity?

In its quest for quantifiable results, the traditional grading system often overlooks the nuanced and diverse ways in which knowledge and intelligence manifest. It tends to favor those who can navigate the bureaucratic structures of large educational institutions – a skill that, while useful, is distinctly different from intellectual inquiry or creative problem-solving. This system of "credential seeking" may inadvertently sideline genuinely talented individuals who find the rigid structure of standardized education stifling.

I remember my philosophy class, where on an essay I responded to test and essay prompts with alternative answers to those the professor was expecting ... "D." I mean, I deserved the D on my mathematics course (in fact my instructor was kind, even tutoring me directly to help pass the class), because those are black and white. To me, this was an example of how students who parrot back (e.g. good test takers) what the curriculum is, vs synthesizing their own ideas, are encouraged by the system of grades and tests. 

If I had been evaluated differently, could I have continued and completed my college study, and would I have been better equipped to go on to a successful, stable career? So, what are alternative ways to measure academic success that can capture a broader spectrum of student abilities? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Portfolio Assessments: Instead of relying solely on tests and grades, evaluating a collection of a student's work over time can provide a more comprehensive view of their abilities, growth, and potential.
  • Project-Based Evaluations: Assessing students based on projects that they design and implement can offer insights into their problem-solving, creativity, and application of knowledge in real-world scenarios.
  • Peer and Self-Assessments: Involving students in the evaluation process can encourage reflection and critical thinking. Peer assessments can also foster a sense of responsibility and community learning.
  • Narrative Feedback: Rather than reducing student performance to a letter grade, narrative feedback from educators can provide more nuanced and constructive insights into a student's strengths and areas for improvement.
  • Experiential Learning and Internships: Practical experiences, such as internships or community projects, can be powerful indicators of a student's skills, work ethic, and ability to apply learning in practical contexts.

The argument isn't to eliminate grades or standardized testing altogether but to recognize their limitations and complement them with broader, more inclusive assessment methods. I feel like I am a more willing critical thinker than many of my peers who completed college and advanced degrees. I am also more willing to see other sides of debates. Could this be the result of the fact that I was so unsuited to the black and white regimes of traditional education?


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